I’ve finished reading James Howard Kunstler’s new book Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation.
This book is pretty much an update to Kunstler’s 2005 book The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.
Seven years have come and gone. Has the Peak Oil doomer forecast panned out?
(1) In hindsight, the highly anticipated global peak in conventional oil production – the dependable stuff you pump out of the ground in oil rigs from vast underground pools – seems to have arrived on schedule in late 2005/early 2006.
(2) In 2007/2008, the “housing bubble” collapsed and the suburban sprawl economy sputtered and still hasn’t recovered. This doesn’t come as any surprise to Kunstler who has spent over a decade criticizing suburbia as the greatest misallocation of resources in world history and as a living arrangement with no future.
(3) In 2008, the global financial system got into serious trouble, and before the dust settled Congress and the Federal Reserve had ponied up a $7.7 trillion dollar bailout to Wall Street and European and American banks. Although Kunstler is renowned for his annual failed stock market predictions, the destruction and/or transfer of wealth in the 2008 financial crisis was effectively the same.
There is no telling how much money the Federal Reserve has printed since that time. Meanwhile, the financial crisis never ended in Europe and has become a slow motion trainwreck, with world leaders flying by the seat of their pants trying to stamp out fires as they appear in the eurozone.
(4) We’re now in the fourth year of a
depression (recovery) which the Beltway establishment refuses to acknowledge.
(5) In the Middle East and North Africa, the uptick in global food prices has already led to political instability, most recently with the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt and with the civil war now raging in Syria – oil prices are down in part because Saudi Arabia has put the foot on the accelerator to stave off its own problem with “domestic unrest.”
(6) As I write this, protests are breaking out in Japan over the restart of nuclear reactors following the Fukushima disaster.
(7) In the Nineties and Aughties, much hope was invested in alternative energy sources ranging from the hydrogen economy to switch grass to ethanol to algae to wind and solar and biomass to the “Pickens Plans” with liquified natural gas – none of which panned out, btw, in spite of the hype.
Like all the other presidents before them stretching back to Nixon, Bush and Obama promised to make America “energy independent,” and seven years later it still hasn’t happened. Obama’s “green economy” and “green jobs” has become the butt of jokes even on the Left.
(8) In Spring 2010, the Gulf Coast was inundated by an oil spill following BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe – disasters such as this one were predicted as drilling has shifted to ever more marginal areas overseas and offshore.
(9) Since Kunstler’s The Long Emergency was published in 2005, we’ve seen various countries like Mexico go through Peak Oil which is one of America’s biggest sources of imports.
(10) We’ve seen all the major airlines (most recently American Airlines) either merge or go bankrupt. In 2011, the last space shuttle was launched with a promise that America would go back to space sometime around 2025.
(11) Since 2005, technology has continued to advance, so we now have things like HDTV, smartphones, Netflix, Kindle, YouTube, Facebook and various apps, but the really important systems haven’t advanced much unless you count, say, the advent of predator drones.
(12) Kunstler is a big fan of paleo-futurism. In 2001, there was no space odyssey. We’re almost to 2015 and it is unlikely there will be any of Doc Brown’s flying cars or hoverboards. The future of 2000 hasn’t lived up to the hype of those imagining the future in 1950.
(13) Americans are an optimistic people and much hope is now being invested in shale oil and shale gas (now that we have moved on from solar, hydrogen, and ethanol) which Kunstler spends a considerable amount of time debunking. He points out that the Bakken formation in North Dakota only has 1/3 of the recoverable oil of Prudhoe Bay and that Alaskan production – the stuff coming down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from the North Slope – is now only a trickle of what it was in the 1980s.
The kerogen in the Green River Formation is not conventional oil. It would require enormous inputs of water and energy to heat and process it. It just happens to be located in one of the most arid corners of the entire country.
(14) Chesapeake Energy, the herald of the shale oil and shale gas revolution in the United States, is now immersed in a thicket of scandals and is approaching bankruptcy as volatility in energy and capital markets disrupts its operations.
(15) “Shale oil” is oil that is trapped in source rock which was never able to collect in vast underground pools like conventional oil fields. Some of this oil is recoverable through hydraulic fracturing, but this process is expensive and like offshore drilling or drilling in the Arctic it is not remotely the same as drilling a conventional oil well.
The overarching message of this book is that Americans have too much faith in technology which leads to ever more complexity and to diminishing returns over time. The technology and prosperity of the oil age has lulled us into a dangerously false sense of security.
You go to the gas station and take for granted that the gas (which comes from imported oil from overseas) will always be there at an affordable price. You go to the supermarket and take for granted that the cheap food (which depends upon the depleting aquifers and the vast oil and phosphorus inputs) will always be there.
You to the Super Wal-Mart and take for granted that all the manufactured goods imported from the other side of the planet will always be there. You go to the bank and take for granted that your money will always be there.
Complex systems have a tendency to get into trouble in a crisis. Look no further than the catastrophic decline in material culture in the sixth century remnants of the Western Roman Empire following the barbarian invasions. The energy crisis represents the ultimate challenge to the perpetuation of global industrial civilization and the American standard of living.
Will our faith in technology fail us? Kunstler is betting that it will. Seven years from now we ought to know for sure. In the meantime, I plan to keep watching and blogging as history unfolds.
Note: In the book, Kunstler describes race as “America’s wild card” and anticipates widespread racial conflict as BRA collapses. He also thinks America might break apart along regional lines down the road.